Festival Films Feature Climate Change In The Y-K Delta

Dec 9, 2018

Credit Tom Burke

Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta communities showed up in several motion pictures at the Anchorage International Film Festival last week. Two of them dealt with climate change, something that surfaced as a theme at the festival. 

The soundtrack of “Children of the Dig” fills the auditorium as the audience sees ancient artifacts that were found at a Yup’ik house site near Quinhagak. The film starts with an image of people clustered around as the dig unearths an ancient mask.

“If this comes out and it isn’t a mask… feels like a log right now."

“Ooh!” the crowd exclaims as a digger pulls out a mask. 

The film’s director, Joshua Barnstetter, says that the story of the dig and its meaning for the young is bigger than Quinhagak. 

“This is a ticking time bomb,” he says. “Stuff is being lost everyday. Stuff that can change these children’s lives when they recapture their sense of identity from what is their history. And nobody sees that more than the people that live on the villages of Alaska because they see it everyday.”

The hundreds of ancient artifacts surfacing at Quinhagak brought out an even larger stash of stories from village Elders. They told tales that they had heard from their Elders and explained everything from the layout of traditional homes, to how these artifacts were used when they were made 500 years ago. 

In the film ”Children of the Dig”, Quinhagak residents agree that the Elders coming forward and being part of the excavation is important.

“Going back and seeing our culture surfacing again through the dig is helping people to reconnect.”

“They started talking about the stories they didn’t want to tell before.”

“Growing up hearing the stories that my grandfather told about that area there, and the people that lived there; these were stories that he heard, and it validates the stories.”

At the center of the film, unexplained, was a ritual where an elder prays and buries a piece of fish in the ground to feed the spirits of those who had made the artifacts that had been coming out of the ground. The excavation helps to feed the spirits of those living in Quinhagak and working at the dig today. “Children of the Dig” is many things. Among them, it is a story of reciprocity and celebration.

The film "Losing Alaska" documents the frustration of the people of Newtok struggling to escape the erosion that threatens their homes. Director Tom Burke was inspired to come to Alaska from Ireland, where he had read about the situation in the Guardian, a British newspaper.   

Burke says that Newtok was portrayed in the article as a community full of interesting characters. “But it was also this microcosmic version of the global problem of climate change,” he explained. “And the idea that you could visibly see the land falling away year by year sparked my visual imagination.”

Flying to a remote village and convincing the people in that tiny community to tell their stories was not easy. The decades-long battle to save their homes from the river has left deep scars of division. Villagers were accustomed to, and tired of, telling their story, but the Irishman was patient.

“Those news crews, if they were doing a news package, would stay for two days or three days. I would stay for nine days. And so on day four or five, they’d look at me and go, 'Oh you’re still here.' And at that point they’d start to feed me or talk about other things. Also, because I wasn’t on a news deadline I didn’t have to have my camera with me all the time. I could just talk. I could just drink cups of tea. There were several trips where I filmed very little at all, and you just kind of build the trust and the relationships that way.”

Over more than three years, Burke would visit Newtok sometimes five or six times a year so that he could see and record what life was like all year round. That shows in the deliberately slow pace of the carefully crafted film, which lures viewers into “village time” to understand why people would choose to stay there on the edge of the world.

Many in the audience at the film’s showing at the Anchorage Internationl Film Festival were from Newtok. Some were featured in the film talking about their decision to leave the village and move to the city.

“I wish them the best in their move, but we’re moved. This is the way it is.” 

Burke showed his careful approach to crafting the documentary in the choices he made. It was segments other film-makers might have left on the cutting room floor that resonated with former Newtok residents: scenes like watching their neighbor’s children go trick or treating brought laughter and applause.

The stories presented at the Anchorage International Film Festival can and did often catch audiences unaware. One of the funniest moments came during a film about Alaskans' reaction to the possible threat of nuclear missiles from North Korea during the early days of the Trump administration. Alaskans in the film brushed the threat aside. One suggested he was more worried about earthquakes. The Anchorage audience, having spent the week trying to recover from a major quake and surviving daily aftershocks, laughed long and hard.